That said, the selections in the act -- which included everything from LuPone's so-called signature songs, "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," and "Meadowlark" to such then-contemporary fare as "Because the Night," and the ultra-campy "Heaven Is a Disco" -- were not really her choices. "David Lewis, my musical director, picked everything in the set," she notes. "I can't even remember what the rehearsals were like, except that every time I went to his place, I learned another piece of material. It was all about what was in his mind."
Ironically, the cassettes of the show remained in her and Lewis' possession for the past 28 years -- well, the ones that LuPone didn't throw out -- and the decision to release them on CD only came about after actress Leslie Kritzer did a tribute to the show at Joe's Pub and was planning to put out her own CD. (LuPone never went to see the act, but did give Kritzer her blessing to do it.) LuPone says that to the best of her memory that everything she sang in the club made it onto the CD -- with one exception. "We didn't include 'Inchworm,' which is fine, because I didn't want to sing it anyway."
Listening to the recording now, LuPone notes: "It's a riot; it seems to me everyone is on speed, though it wasn't probably true. I can't believe how many times I said 'thank you, thank you, thank you.' But it was truly an unadulterated joy to do that show, and I don't regret anything. If you edit yourself, you can turn into a total bore. I remember sliding off a piano and a tray of drinks went into someone's lap. But so what? People really wanted to be there -- over 500 people came to see me every night -- but I really still have no idea why it was such a success. Somehow, it became the thing to do."
Indeed, the crowd was often full of celebrities, and the CD includes a special shout out to one guest, composer Stephen Sondheim, in which LuPone states she would happily end her career if she starred in one of his shows. Fortunately, that finale hasn't happened -- even though LuPone has starred in Sweeney Todd on Broadway, done numerous concert versions of his work (including the extraordinary Passion at Lincoln Center), and is now playing Mama Rose in Gypsy. So the question remains: Have the pair ever discussed that comment? "No," says LuPone. "I'm too afraid to even talk about it with him."
Singing these works, she acknowledges, is a very different experience for her. "With my own songs, I never feel like I have to interpret them in a theatrical way; it's not like I have to play Pirate Jenny," she notes, "I just want the words to paint a picture in a more cinematic way, and let the songs make its own impact on the people who are listening."
Lemper was inspired to try her hand at songwriting a few years back, inspired in part by her album Punishing Kiss, which focused on Waits' music, and by turning 40 years old. "When you turn 40, you see how fast life is going by and you want to express the journey you've been on," she says. "It took me about two years of intense writing and working at the piano to come up with these songs. I try to work when I'm alone in the house, which isn't easy with three kids and a partner around, all of whom can be very direct in their commentary. Luckily, I also have these four genius musicians I work with and it's important to me how they feel about how the songs sound."
Lemper will be performing some of these new songs as part of Pirate Jenny Comes Back at Joe's Pub, November 14-29. "The only bad thing about being there is that the shaking ice machine at the bar in the back always comes on during my quietest moments," she says with a laugh. "But the New York audience is my favorite, and because of the proximity there between you and the audience, I always feel like I'm performing in my living room. I think having the audience so close is daring on their part -- which makes me feel daring. I'll try not to mentally undress everyone in the front row, but you never know."